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Some Pundits Blame Group of Eight for Delays

But some political pundits and legislators also have pointed the finger of blame for the session's length toward a group of House Democrats commonly referred to as the Group of Eight.

The group, consisting mostly of black Democrats, does not meet formally but has banded together to stifle the efforts of the Democratic House leadership from time to time.

The Democrats hold just a four-seat majority in the House, making the group's eight votes sufficient to derail the efforts of Democratic leaders on issues such as tax increases and legislative redistricting.

Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, said that while there is no clear-cut reason for the group's formation, similar political stances have something to do with it.

"They're obviously political allies," Guillory said, adding that the group first got together to back Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, when he staged an unsuccessful 1999 coup with House Republicans against Rep. Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, in a race for House Speaker.

The coalition failed by just one vote, and Black became House Speaker for the first time.

The group is led by Blue and Rep. Toby Fitch, D-Wilson, both of whom have had a contentious relationship with House Democratic leadership. The group's other members are Reps. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham; Bob Hensley, D-Wake; Howard Hunter, D-Northampton; Alma Adams, D-Guilford; Mary McAllister, D-Cumberland and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

While some pundits speculate that the group's motive is to roadblock Black's proposals, others say the group is simply representing its constituents.

There was also some speculation last winter that members of the group were trying to build a coalition this year, similar to the one in 1999, either to get one of their own elected House speaker or to give control of the House to the Republicans.

During the 2001 legislative session, members of the group have delayed several bills in the House, such as a tax increase package and most recently the redistricting plan, arguing both times that the Democratic plans would hurt their constituents.

In September, members of the Group of Eight refused to vote for a tax increase plan that was supported by most House Democrats.

After about a month of closed-door negotiations, the Democrats finally managed to appease members of the group and gather enough votes to pass the tax package.

Guillory said members of the group opposed the tax increase in order to benefit their constituents and ensure their own political success in the future.

"The reason they opposed the 1 percent increase in sales tax was to make black majority districts safer for black representatives," Guillory said.

At the time, members of the group argued that they did not want a tax increase that would be financially damaging for their constituents.

Similarly, several members of the group refused to vote for a House redistricting plan supported by House Democrats because they said the plan did not include enough districts with a black voter majority.

After more than a week of negotiations, the Democratic leadership once again had to redraw its plans to appease members of the group.

Guillory said some Democrats have tired of the Group of Eight's antics.

"Internally, within the legislature, other Democrats are annoyed," he said,

"But voters expect a certain amount of in-fighting within the legislature. It hardly ever ripples out."

Fitch has expressed contempt in the past for those who criticize the group's work.

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"I think it is unfounded to criticize a group of people for trying to do what is right," he said.

Thad Beyle, a UNC political science professor, said dissension within a political party is not uncommon and this group is not the first of its kind.

"It's happened before, especially in 1989, when some Democrats broke away from the Democratic caucus and joined the Republican party," he said.

That coalition was successful and toppled powerful House Speaker Liston Ramsey.

But Guillory said the situation this session is unique because party dissension normally increases when the majority party far outweighs the minority.

"When the legislature was majority Democratic, there were various factions within the Democratic party," he said. "When two parties in the House are closely arrayed, the impulse for party discipline is stronger."

Guillory said the group has established the power that it needs to be recognized but that its ideas should not be viewed as in agreement with those of the rest of the Democrats.

"They have power within the House," Guillory said. "They have the ability to sway consideration on issues. But they have not articulated a united political philosophy, no ideological motive."

Although members of the Group of Eight sometimes dissent from the rest of the Democratic party, Beyle said their actions have good intentions.

"There's no political vengeance," Beyle said. "It's just good, raw politics."

Guillory said the group is also selective with the bills it chooses to oppose rather than consistently opposing Democratic leadership.

"The group only forms when there is an issue that they want to address," Guillory said.

"It is uncommon to have a small group find themselves at the fulcrum of House activity."

But Fitch said that in the end, his loyalty falls to the people he represents over the group, and the other members of the group feel the same way.

"My obligation is to the people who sent me here. It happens to be that the eight of us have a common purpose," Fitch said.

"We're just trying to do what's right for those we represent."

Beyle said the separation of the group from the Democrats will not affect party control of the state House, which the Democrats controlled for most of the 20th century.

"I don't think the Democrats will turn against them, because they are trying to maintain the Democratic caucus, and so they are trying to go along the best they can," he said.

Beyle also said the political future of the group is stable.

"(There are) 12 districts that are predominately black, and there are six more districts that are made up of over 40 percent blacks," he said. "So, unless their districts change dramatically or if they decide to run for higher office, like Dan Blue is doing, they will surely be re-elected."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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